U.S. Smoking Rates Keep Life Expectancy Down

Study Shows High Smoking Rates in Earlier Decades Affects Life Spans in U.S.

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 25, 2011

Jan. 25, 2011 -- Life expectancies in the U.S. are now lower than for many other industrialized countries, and the nation’s past love affair with tobacco is largely to blame, government officials say.

In a report released Tuesday, a panel commissioned by the National Research Council sought to explain why the U.S. spends more on health care than any other nation, yet Americans are dying younger than some of their counterparts in other high-income countries.

Over the past two and a half decades, life expectancies continued to rise in the U.S., but at a slower pace than those seen in Australia, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, and other high-income European countries.

The average life expectancy for men in the U.S. was 75.6 years in 2007, compared to around 79 years among men in living in Australia, Japan, and Sweden and between 77 and 78 years among men living in the Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France.

The life expectancy for women in the U.S. is 80.8 years, which is lower than for any other high-income country included in the analysis except Denmark (80.5 years).

Smoking Time Lag

Americans now smoke less than the populations of many other industrialized, high-income countries, but this was not the case in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, panel co-chair Samuel H. Preston, PhD, tells WebMD.

Three to five decades ago, smoking rates were much higher in the U.S. than in Europe or Japan, and the impact of this is now being seen in the mortality data, the report found.

“There is a lag time of several decades between when people smoke and when they die of smoking-related diseases,” Preston says.

The panel found the impact of smoking on life expectancy to be especially pronounced among American women who, as a group, both started and began to stop smoking later than men.

Smoking rates peaked for men in the U.S. in the mid 1950s at around 57%, but had dropped to around 30% by 1990.

Rates were highest among women in the 1960s and 1970s, when between 30% and 35% of women smoked, according to CDC.

Around 23% of American men and 18% of American women now smoke, CDC says.

The trends mean that life expectancies in the U.S. are likely to increase more rapidly for men than women in the coming decades, the panel found.

Obesity and Life Expectancy

The group concluded that rising obesity rates in the U.S. have also played a role in lagging life expectancy gains. The report concludes that obesity may account for a fifth to a third of this lag.

The impact of obesity is much harder to quantify that that of tobacco, Preston says. But there is concern that rising obesity rates may offset the improvement in life expectancy expected from smoking reductions.

“The future is not as attractive as it would be without the epidemic of obesity,” he says. “We are the heaviest country in the Western world. We know this has an impact on life expectancy, but the magnitude of this risk is not well understood.”

The panel also investigated the impact of access to health care on life expectancy in the U.S., finding little evidence that lack of access has contributed to the lag in life expectancy gains.

Panel members relied on the latest data from the Human Mortality Database. According to the Database:

  • Between 1980 and 2007, the overall life expectancy among men in the U.S. increased from 70 to 75.6 years, while life expectancy among women increased from 77.4 to 80.7.
  • The average 50-year-old American man can expect to live an additional 29.2 years, while the average 50-year-old American women can expect to live an additional 33 years.

In 2007, men and women in the U.S. who lived to age 80 could expect to live an additional 8.2 and 9.8 years, respectively.

Show Sources


National Research Council: “Report on Life Expectancy in U.S. and Other High-Income Nations.”

Samuel H. Preston, PhD, professor of demography, University of Pennsylvania.

News release, National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences.

CDC web site: “Smoking Prevalence Among US Adults, 1955-2007.”

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